Journalists strive for three things: accuracy, clarity, and conciseness. That's why recent events at the New York Times give every journalist cause to wonder about the state of the profession.
Jayson Blair, a young reporter promoted by management despite being error prone, later admitted to fabricating major stories. So much for accuracy. Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, misled readers by filing from datelines where he'd done no reporting. So much for clarity. And Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Maureen Dowdnever one for a clear, concise pointused ellipses, a necessary if dangerous tool of concise writing, to misrepresent comments made by President Bush. A trifecta.
Each transgression belies systemic problems at the Times, many of which have been in place for years. Now add one more to the list.
More than ever before, the Times and other major newspapers are abandoning the standard of straight news reporting. First news analysis crept onto front pages; now such analysis is part and parcel of major stories, as reporters go beyond reporting facts and forget an important (if lately co-opted) mantra: we report, you decide.
Many ascribe such spin to bias, whether conscious or not, on the part of the liberal mediaas the editor of the Los Angeles Times acknowledged to his staff in a memo last week. But the following examples of recent coverage in the two Times show that spin and analysis have crept into the most basic news stories.
The story: President Bush attends the G8 summit in France, where among other things he met Jacques Chirac for the first time since butting heads with the French leader over the war in Iraq.
Here's how the New York Times reported the meeting:
Mr. Bush arrived here from St. Petersburg, Russia, after a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin that both men used to put differences over Iraq behind them, and to sign the recently rarified treaty that required both sides to reduce their nuclear arsenals.
There was no such warmth during Mr. Bush's pro forma handshake and chitchat with President Jacques Chirac of France this afternoon, just as there was none with the German Chancellor…Mr. Bush believed that those two European leaders undercut his efforts against Saddam Hussein, and White House officials have made clear that there would be little effort to mend fences here at the meeting of the Group of 8…
Mr. Chirac described his encounter with Mr. Bush as "positive," but then curtly ended questions on the issue by declaring that he had no "discomfort" in dealing with the American president." [Emphasis added.]
Notice the analysis of the handshake, and the use of the conjunction "but," both of which spin the event.
Now, consider coverage in the L.A. Times, which appeared under the following headline: "At Summit, a Makeup Session: Bush meets with Chirac in his mission to mend relations frayed by Iraq war. The French president says sessions were 'very positive.' "
Here are the first two paragraphs of the story:
President Bush extended a hand of greeting to French President Jacques Chirac on Sunday, formally commencing a process of rebuilding relations with France after severe disagreement over the U.S. decision to go to war against Iraq.
Their handshakebrief but not hurried, cordial but not effusivewas a pivotal gesture in Bush's diplomatic mission to repair frayed relations with longtime allies.
Same event, different reporters, vastly different accounts.
The disparity is not troubling because one reporter was right and one wrong; the problem is that both reporters analyzed what happened instead of reporting the facts, and nothing but the facts. Instead, both newspapers were drawn to the drama of Bush and Chirac meeting face to facean event that could shed light on the future of our relationship with France and shape world politics. They tried to deliver that story, but instead of reporting the relevant facts, they took a shortcut and tried to interpret the eventsinaccurately, we know, in at least one case.
Lest we lose faith in the entire media, many newspapers got the story right. The International Herald Tribuneowned by the New York Times but under separate managementdoes not evidently encourage its reporters to engage in handshake analysis, and provided the best coverage of a major newspaper:
President George W. Bush and President Jacques Chirac of France met briefly in what the White House referred to as a courtesy call… "I know there are a lot of people in both our countries wondering whether or not we can actually sit down and have a comfortable conversation," Bush said of his meeting with the French President. "And the answer is absolutely. We can have disagreements but that doesn't mean we have to be disagreeable to each other."
Chirac, who addressed the feud between the two men over the U.S.-led war in Iraq only briefly during a news conference Sunday night, added Monday: "We had a very positive meeting this morning that underscored our common belief in the capacity of tomorrow's world to achieve higher growth."
That kind of detailthose quotationsare the relevant details that reporters should provide to readers.
That way, we report. And you decide.